A slip of the tongue by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has triggered one of the worst crises in the long dispute over Western Sahara, which is claimed by both Morocco and the Algeria-backed, pro- independence Polisario Front, though it is mostly controlled by Morocco. During his visit to Polisario-run camps of Sahrawi refugees in southwestern Algeria on March 5th—with the goal of jumpstarting deadlocked negotiations on a self-determination referendum—the secretary-general referred to Morocco’s “occupation” of Western Sahara in what a subsequent UN publication referred to as his “personal reaction.” In protest, Rabat expelled most of the civilian staff for the UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) two weeks later and requested it close its military liaison office in Dakhla. Although Ban Ki-Moon expressed regret over the “misunderstanding” on March 28, the crisis has heightened tension in the sub-region and prompted concerns over whether the UN-led settlement process can lead to a stable outcome. The spat has also sharpened divisions within the UN Security Council (UNSC) and tarnished the UN’s credibility as other countries worry that Morocco’s reaction sets a precedent by which host countries can undermine the work of UN Missions without consulting the Security Council. As a result, discussion at the UNSC annual meeting on MINURSO this month will likely shift from the mission’s progress to renewed commitment to its presence in Western Sahara, as well as damage control with Morocco.
For the past three decades, Morocco has consistently described Western Sahara as its southern province—and has further divided the territory across three of its official provinces. This contradicts Polisario’s view that the disputed territory is occupied territory awaiting liberation from Morocco’s occupying forces. The disputing claims, a ceasefire, and a glacial process towards holding a referendum on self-determination have all been managed by MINURSO since the early 1990s.
Outside observers may be taken aback at the speed and intensity of Morocco’s reaction—which came on March 17, less than two weeks after Ban Ki-Moon’s controversial statement, and deviated from the standard diplomatic path, suggesting long-held grievances against the UN. Likewise, the diplomatic flurry at the UNSC’s emergency meeting—including five days of discussions between senior UN officials and growing divisions between Security Council members on whether the incident even merits a multilateral response—may strike outside observers as a surprising result of Morocco’s objection to a seemingly benign description of its control over Western Sahara. Yet Morocco’s strong reaction is in part triggered by the secretary-general’s use of Polisario terminology. To be fair, the UN has never fully clarified Morocco’s status in Western Sahara, neither acknowledging Morocco as the legal ruler nor offering a credible alternative status. Rather, it has opted for a realistic recognition of Rabat’s de facto control over the territory.
The seeming disproportionality of Rabat’s retaliatory measures reveals its long-held objective to weaken the UN presence in Western Sahara and eventually incapacitate MINURSO’s political mandate. That mandate, which includes preparing the ground for a referendum on independence or integration with Morocco, had effectively been frozen since 2000, and Rabat has expressed its preference for a negotiated final status that includes formal integration of Western Sahara as an autonomous region of Morocco. The divisions exposed by this latest crisis among UN Security Council members may be what Rabat was hoping for, as it will likely further weaken the UN role and “de-internationalize” the dispute, in particular by dropping any official reference to a final self-determination referendum.
Morocco’s across-the-board expulsion of MINURSO staff has effectively deprived the UN mission of critical logistical support to monitor the ceasefire. Downplaying its closure of the UN military liaison office in Dakhla, Rabat confirmed that normal cooperation between Moroccan Forces and MINURSO’s military component is still taking place on the ground and communication with the head of MINURSO remains open. But the diplomatic fallout has also hit at MINURSO’s political support. Polisario’s initial threat to resume armed conflicts and reported troop mobilization contrast with Algieria’s implicit restraint in reiterating its support for settling the dispute within the UN process. Algiers, its main supporter, wants to protect MINURSO’s mandate even though the mission’s focus on organizing a self-determination referendum had already become increasingly unattainable given Morocco’s steadfast and consistent opposition.
More significantly, the crisis has generated sharp divisions among UNSC members. These were on display during the UNSC consultations on March 17–24 to discuss a response to Morocco’s expulsion of UN staff. At these hectic discussions, France and Spain in particular argued for handling the crisis bilaterally with Morocco, which would weaken the UN’s role and exclude the possibility of adding a human rights mandate to MINURSO’s mission. Other member states took an opposing position, calling for the return of MINURSO staff and reasserting the UN’s authority to make peacekeeping decisions. Yet UNSC discussions yielded nothing more than “press elements,” which require consensus but are not part of the official UN record. These essentially descriptive talking points failed to even express support for UN efforts, let alone express any views on Morocco’s decision or Ban Ki-Moon’s statements.
Second, for Morocco and Algeria-backed Polisario, the incapacitation of MINURSO functions has far-reaching consequences on the current structure and format of ongoing negotiations. While Morocco foresees autonomy for the territory to be followed by a referendum on the exact nature of its final autonomous status, Polisario and Algeria hang on to the idea of a self-determination referendum on independence or integration with Morocco. For Morocco, this translates into the continuation of negotiations on a political agreement based on its autonomy plan, and for Polisario/Algeria, the preservation of MINURSO’s mandate on a future self-determination referendum. Until now, the parties to the conflict have been able to pursue each goal without derailing the other, but the unfolding crisis has shaken this current understanding and allowed Morocco to hit at MINURSO’s self-determination referendum mandate. Morocco could also perhaps preempt attempts by Polisario and Algeria to expand the mission’s mandate to include human rights monitoring, which Morocco has steadfastly opposed.
The crisis has thus reshaped this April’s upcoming discussion on MINURSO’s renewal by opening up for debate the issue of the mission’s structure and functions, including human rights monitoring tasks. Ultimately, the issue for the UNSC is not whether to renew MINURSO’s mandate, but for how long and with what reporting frequency. Those supporting Morocco would want to retain the standard one-year extension and keep pressure as light as possible on monitoring its progress.
Jacques Roussellier teaches international relations at American Military University and is co-editor of the book Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalism and Geopolitics (Rowman & Littlefield).